The last time Sweet Home Sports visited the Blackhawks, they had just dropped two straight following their historic regulation win streak to start this strike shortened season. Some thought this might be where the wheels finally were going to fall off for a Hawks team who has struggled to return to form since their Stanley Cup winning season in 2010. But since that time, the Hawks have returned to form, having most recently won 8 of their last 9 contests, including two shut outs at the hands of Ray Emery. With only six games left in the season, let’s take a look at a couple of the Hawks’ keys as they enter the stretch run to the playoffs.
1). Stay healthy
In what has been a near perfect season, the one blemish for the Hawks came during the stretch they played while Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp were out hurt. And while Sharp has been in and out of the lineup since then, they have been noticeably better when Hossa plays, with him scoring 5 points during this current 6 game win streak. But its no secret that one of the key to their success so far this year has been healthy bodies and depth. They pose a major threat when their third and fourth lines as as much a threat to score as their first and second. But while their depth affords them some flexibility, the loss of one of their stars (Toews, Kane or Hossa) could be costly, particularly in later rounds when they have to face the Ducks or Penguins and will need those guys to make plays.
2). Special Teams
One of the reasons the Hawks were so unstoppable to start the year was their incredible special teams. However since then they’ve understandably dropped off, and currently rank 20th in Power Play %, while three of the teams that pose greatest threat to them come playoffs, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Anaheim, all rank in the top ten. Luckily their Penalty Kill percentage has remained high, currently ranked 5th in the league at 86% – but their special teams needs to score more on the Power Play, especially against some of these teams that will have an advantage on them in that area. They will need to take advantage of every goal scoring opportunity.
3). Defense and Goaltending
At some point soon, Joe Quenneville is going to have to choose a starting goaltender for the playoffs. And while I still believe all signs point to Corey Crawford, I don’t think they can ignore how successful they’ve been with a goaltending rotation between he and Ray Emery. That said, I still believe barring a major setback, that Crawford will start the majority of the playoff games in net. And his success weighs heavily on the Blackhawks defense not allowing too many shots on goal. The Blackhawks have been stellar on defense, only allowing an average of 26 shots on goal per game, ranking 4th in the league in that category. And that needs to continue since Crawford, who has improved even as the season has progressed, can have lapses at times. I still think the Blackhawks will have a major advantage here though if they rotate between Crawford and Emery throughout the playoffs, maybe 2 Crawford starts for every 1 by Emery. It becomes a major strength for them, especially in a seven game series where normally you get a good look at a goaltender several games in a row.